1996: John Albert Taylor, the last American to face a firing squad

8 comments January 26th, 2010 Headsman

Moments past midnight on this date in 1996 five anonymous marksmen fired four .30-.30 caliber rounds (one rifle had blanks, a balm to the shooters’ consciences) into the heart of Utah rapist John Albert Taylor: the last use to date of a firing squad in the United States. (Update: Not anymore.)

Actually, he’s the only person put to death by shooting under the modern American death penalty regime besides Gary Gilmore.

Like Gilmore, Taylor voluntarily dropped his appeals and sought his own execution for the 1989 rape-murder of Charla Nicole King. A confidante would later reveal that health problems led him to do so in preference to the feared alternative of dying alone in his cell.

As he chose death, so he chose the method: not a clinical, forgettable lethal injection, but the discomfiting tableau of the target pinned over his heart, the protective sandbags stacked up behind him, and the tray of blood beneath the chair he was strapped into. Taylor said he wanted to make a statement. (And that he feared “flipping around like a fish out of water” on an injection gurney, his other option in Utah.)

The reclusive Taylor denied the crime to the end, but never found many takers for the story he was selling — that he’d just so happened to leave his fingerprints on the phone cord later used to strangle the prepubescent girl in the course of committing an unrelated robbery. It didn’t help that Taylor had raped his own sister when she was 12.

For the national and international media circus — British, Australian, Japanese, German, Italian, French, and Spanish media all represented — the story was the anachronistic method of execution, right out of the Wild West.

That story doesn’t have many rounds left in the chamber, as it were. In 2004, Utah succumbed to pressure to change its execution method to lethal injection alone. Though the firing squad is technically on the books in Idaho (at the discretion of the state, not the prisoner) and Oklahoma (as a backup option to lethal injection), it’s vanishingly unlikely to be used in either state.* That leaves just a few of the pre-2004 Utah prisoners grandfathered into the option to supplant John Albert Taylor for the distinction of suffering the last firing squad execution in American history.


That’s a “last,” but given our bloggy medium, we would be remiss not to notice a milestone “first” that also attended Taylor’s death.

According to the Deseret News (Jan. 26, 1996), the ACLU sponsored an America Online chat with anti-death penalty actor Mike Farrell during the hours leading up to and following this execution — “the first-ever death-penalty vigil in cyberspace.”

* Predominantly Mormon Utah has been the firing squad’s last redoubt thanks to the sect’s “blood atonement” theology. (As seen in its pioneer days.) According to the Espy file (pdf) of historical U.S. executions, the last American execution by shooting not to occur in the state of Utah was that of Andriza Mircovich in Nevada back in 1913. (Oklahoma used the firing squad routinely in the 19th century.)

Part of the Daily Double: Throwback Executions.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Milestones,Murder,Rape,Sex,Shot,USA,Utah,Volunteers

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1939: Three Men For Murder, But Not Isidore Zimmerman

1 comment January 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Isidore “Beansy” Zimmerman spent the day preparing for death in New York’s electric chair … but was spared by an 11th-hour clemency from New York Governor Herbert Lehman.

Here’s the scene, as laid in the anti-death penalty tome of wrongful convictions In Spite of Innocence:

As dawn broke over Sing Sing Prison, Beansy Zimmerman had every reason to think it would be his last day.

Zimmerman numbly went through the pre-execution rituals. The last meal (choose whatever you want), and music (you get to choose that, too) played on the wind-up phonograph. The barber shaves your scalp so the electrodes can fit snugly against your bare skin. The tailor slits one of your trouser legs for another electrode. Officials treat you with unaccustomed politeness. A final family visit — how do you say good-bye when you know it is forever? What should your last words be? Beansy’s mother stayed away, unable to face such finality.

Two hours before execution, Gov. Lehman commuted his sentence.

In this blog, we lay aside each story day by day, but for those affected, it’s rarely so easy — which is why the mothers of the five men condemned today put in their personal clemency appeals to the governor.

For Zimmerman and a fellow “accomplice” named Philip Chaleff whose respective roles in a robbery/murder were doubted, it had the desired effect. (Dominick Guariglia, Arthur Friedman and Joseph O’Loughlin weren’t so lucky.)

Chaleff, a diabetic being kept alive just for execution, soon succumbed. For Zimmerman, the execution that did not happen was to define the rest of his 66 years. He was alive, but to what end?

“I wasn’t dead, no,” he remembered. “But every day from now on they’d bury me a little more.”

Zimmerman fought, by becoming a skilled jailhouse lawyer and in 1962 finally winning exoneration from the New York Supreme Court, which held that the testimony against him had been perjured with the connivance of the prosecutor.

He’d spent nearly a quarter-century in prison. Now, he was just another ex-con scrabbling after dead-end employment.

For years thereafter, Zimmerman fought for a special bill that would allow him to sue the Empire State for wrongful imprisonment, finally winning approval in 1981.

His suit asked for $10 million. The judge reckoned Zimmerman’s time and trouble were worth a tenth of that.

Expenses deducted, Zimmerman walked away with $660,000 — that, and sweet vindication.

Fourteen weeks later, he dropped dead of a heart attack.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1862: 38 Sioux

5 comments December 26th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1862, 38 rebellious Sioux were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Fully 303 had been condemned to die in drumhead trials after the five-week Dakota War, one of the numerous native conflicts sparked by the march of European settlers across North America.

Abraham Lincoln — in a political risk — commuted all but 39 sentences* adjudged “to have participated in massacres, as distinguished from participation in battles,” essentially defining a special category for what today might be considered “war crimes.”

Lincoln had more pressing business on his hands, to be sure, but seems to have been affected by the plight of the natives that drove them to wage hopeless war on encroaching settlers:

“[Bishop Henry Whipple] came here the other day and talked with me about the rascality of this Indian business until I felt it down to my boots. If we get through this war, and I live, this Indian system shall be reformed!”

Fateful “if” — but politicians say many things, after all, and it was long before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater that the tribes had been forced out of Minnesota, scattered to wasteland reservations and subsequent clashes with the American army.

On this day, all that doleful future was prefigured in the 38 who hanged together in what is now Mankato’s Reconciliation Park, an event that after a century’s time has become a moment for commemoration.

Two academics’ pages on the Dakota War and its aftermath are here and here.

*One of those was subsequently spared over uncertainty of the evidence against him.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Milestones,Minnesota,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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